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Profile of a chief executive:
Raúl Colombetti (Sancor)
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published by ICMIF (International Cooperative & Mutual Insurance Federation) in Voice magazine, 2011
This has been a particularly special year for Raúl Colombetti, President of Argentina's cooperative insurer Sancor Seguros. This March saw the opening of Sancor's brand new head office, a strikingly beautiful modernist building just outside the small town of Sunchales which has been home to Sancor ever since its founding in 1945.
The new building, Colombetti says, is the realisation of a dream. Speaking at the grand opening, with Argentina 's president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner alongside him on the platform, he recalled the famous phrase once used by Nelson Mandela: “It always seems impossible until it's done.” The idea of moving Sancor from the historic centre of Sunchales to a purpose built head office on a green field site just outside the town was certainly an ambitious one, and one which Raúl Colombetti, Sancor's MD Néstor Carlos Abatidaga and their colleagues in the cooperative have been living with for several years. The opportunity to acquire the fifteen hectares of land came up in 2006 and the first work on site began a year later, in August 2007. “At each stage of the construction, we prioritised the use of local and regional suppliers, as a way of generating economic activity in our area,” Raúl said. In total, the project represented an investment of USD 32 million.
In his speech at the opening Raúl Colombetti stressed Sancor's cooperative structure as a key element in the success of the development. “Our corporate building is the result and outcome of a way of thinking, of the philosophy of cooperative working,” he said. “For more than 65 years we have maintained as pillars of our work our commitment to our local community and to the spirit of cooperation.”
The new building certainly represents a massive gesture of support for the town of Sunchales and its inhabitants. Sunchales, in the Argentinean province of Santa Fe well to the north of Buenos Aires and the coastal strip, is a small community of less than 20,000 people in a very rural corner of the country. It's more than an hour's drive down highway 34 to the nearest major city, that of Santa Fe. It's an unlikely place to find the head office of one of Argentina 's largest insurers.
But Sancor Seguros has absolutely no intention of moving away from its roots. One of the objectives of the new head office was precisely to demonstrate its commitment to economic development in Argentina 's interior. “We are living in a social and economic context which is marked by the growing trend of internal migration from small communities in the interior towards the big urban centres, where people take themselves off to look for work. This often leads to social and urban problems, with cities which can't offer opportunities to everyone and people who end up living in unsatisfactory temporary accommodation,” Raúl Colombetti said. Towns in the interior of Argentina badly needed investment to create new employment opportunities, he added: “This is why our Group has maintained its decision to consolidate its presence in the place where it came from, as a way of contributing to the economic development of the region.”
For a cooperative such as Sancor Seguros, Sunchales is in any case a very appropriate place to be. The town has recently been declared the national Cooperative Capital of Argentina, and the spirit of cooperation pervades all aspects of the town's economic and cultural life. The story began as far back as 1929, only three years after Argentina first had a national cooperative law in place, when thirty-two dairy farmers in Sunchales came together to establish their own milk cooperative. It was the usual story of hard work and struggle to ensure that they received a fair reward from buyers for their labours: together, they realised, they were much stronger than they had been individually. And from then on the principle of cooperation put down deep roots: other coops became established, including ventures producing cheese and butter. It was no surprise when in 1945 the decision was taken to develop a new, cooperatively run, insurance company in the town.
“For any native from Sunchales, being part of a cooperative is a way of life,” Raúl Colombetti says. He is heavily engaged in the wider cooperative life of his home town, including the work of the Casa Cooperativa (the Cooperative House) and the activities arranged for the town's children and young people. “Our cooperative education system is based on establishing cooperative education in all of the schools - primary for children, secondary for young people, special education for children with different abilities, and in the rural schools. Fifteen cooperative schools have formed a federation which is dedicated to community activities for the benefit of the town of Sunchales . Then there are the youth exchange programmes which have taken place with the Andalusia region of Spain, the region of Emilia-Romagne in Italy, Rio Grande and Paraná in Brazil, and the University of Santiago de Chile,” he explains. He adds that he was delighted on a trip to Europe earlier this year to set up a youth exchange between Sunchales and the northern Italian town of Rivarolo Canavese . “Sunchales was founded by Italians from the north of Italy , very hard-working people who found a way of developing themselves and their community through the cooperative model,” he adds.
The internationalism of the cooperative movement is very important for Colombetti, and Sunchales' status as Argentina 's national cooperative capital has given him an idea which he has begun to discuss with the International Cooperative Alliance. Sunchales has already twinned with Nova Petr ó polis, the national Cooperative Capital of Brazil. But why not, Raúl asks, extend the idea? Why not encourage governments elsewhere to recognise their own centres of cooperative activity? Why not indeed go a step further, and think about a global capital of cooperation? He suggests that one candidate for this status could be the northern English town of Rochdale , where famously a cooperative shop for local people was established in 1844. Children in Sunchales know the story well: one of their schools is named after the Rochdale cooperative Pioneers.
Important as Sunchales' wider cooperative life is, it is ultimately built on the strong business performance of its locally based coops, and here Sancor Seguros has a very impressive story to tell. In the years during which the head office has been gradually taking shape, Sancor has been achieving a striking record of business growth, firmly establishing itself as the second player in the Argentinean insurance market with an 8.5% market share and coming ever closer to bumping the local subsidiary of Generali off its current number one position. Sancor now has assets of around USD 925m and anticipates crossing the USD one billion threshold before the end of the current year.
Sancor quickly developed its business beyond the confines of Sunchales and already by 1956 it had offices in five other Argentinean cities, including Buenos Aires. Its horizons have now been extended to the international arena. In 2004 it established the reassurance arm Punto Sur registered in Miami (USA), in 2006 it opened a subsidiary in Uruguay and in 2009 entered the insurance market in Paraguay . It is now about to launch a full insurance operation in three states in the south of Brazil , where it has run a consultancy operation for the past two years. According to Raúl Colombetti, this area of Brazil is very similar culturally to Argentina . It also represents a major new market for the insurer to develop. “The current climate has enabled us to transmit our values not only locally, regionally and nationally but also in Latin America ,” Raúl says.
Sancor employs about 1500 staff who are based in Sancor's seven regional offices and about forty local offices. Sancor also has a strong network of agencies, who between them provide almost five hundred sales offices. In total, the cooperative currently has about 3.1 million policyholders and about 4,300 products.
The secret of Sancor's recent growth (its three main divisions reported growth of between 35%-40% last year) is a simple one, according to Raúl Colombetti: “It has been laborious growth, laborious in the sense that it has required a lot of hard work and dedication from well-trained staff,” he says. He prides himself on Sancor's ability to produce innovative products, as well as offering good customer service. “Being close to the insured, responding quickly to them when they require assistance is what they expect of us.”
Sancor is also conscious of its roots as an insurer serving the needs of farmers. As well as the development land on which its head office has been constructed, the cooperative has also taken the opportunity to acquire a further neighbouring area of land, some of which it plans to use as an agricultural research station looking at ways of reducing farming risks. A longer-term plan is also to construct a new Cooperative University of Social Economy on another area of the site.
Sancor's successful commercial development is a means to an end, and has enabled the cooperative to develop a strong CSR programme, including the work of its not-for-profit Foundation, which was established in 2007. Sancor also signed up recently to the UN's Global Compact, with its commitment to human rights, labour rights, environmental protection and anti-corruption.
The opportunity to build the new head office has provided a particular opportunity to develop Sancor's environmental credentials. The building has designed to be as green as possible, with energy-saving measures built in to the lighting, heating and air conditioning systems. But it has been designed to be a pleasant place to work for Sancor's staff. It is, Raúl Colombetti says, a demonstration of what cooperative enterprise can achieve.
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